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The Politics of Scripture

Paul’s Propertied Incarnation

Those who read Paul’s propertied incarnation in Galatians should not run away from its horrors or theologize them. We should find truth in them (though perhaps not the truth Paul intended). We should tell truth from them.

1My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental things of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Galatians 4:1-7 (NRSV)

The word was slaved. It was an uncharacteristically chilly North Texas night, and my spouse and I were sprawled on our now perpetually pulled-out Ikea couch-bed (a fixture in the aesthetics of Covidtide), watching a favorite show: Doctor Who. We’ve seen it many times, but sometimes there’s comfort in familiarity. The particular episode worked its comforting magic, until that word was casually strewn in: slaved. As in, “the TARDIS (time machine) is slaved to your timeline.”

You don’t need the particulars of what a TARDIS is, or whose timeline was being referred to. The point is that the word choice was not tethered, or linked, or joined, but slaved. And in a show that tends towards an anti-imperialist and de-weaponized worldsview, the casual inclusion of such a violent word was jarring indeed.

Slavery language is sneaky and prolific in the parlance of our time, and not just in the more-explicit NXIVM phenomenon. Professors slave over grading. The enamored are slaves to love. And, of course, the apt converse language: mastery of all things, from master classes to master bedrooms to master storytellers. Truth be told, most of us don’t even notice the pervasion and perversion of cozy slavery language swirling around us.

But would we, I wonder, draw the line at the inclusion of slavery language in the Christmas narrative? One of the lectionary readings for this first Sunday in Christmas makes us reckon with that question. Galatians 4:4–7 casts the incarnation of Jesus in terms of human property. I’ve added verses 1–3 to the lectionary text selection, because I cannot in good conscience explore a passage that enigmatically begins with “But.”

In Galatians 4:1-7, Paul is articulating a theological anthropology (naming what it means to be human in relation to God) through negation. His readers know the promise of the incarnation of Jesus by what they’re not any longer: slaves. Of all the possibly imaginaries for the Christ Child event, Paul uses the lens of slavery. 

Incarnation imagined through incarceration. Prophetic promises imagined through enslaved humans as chattel property. Redemption of the cosmos imagined through male inheritance law. Adoption imagined as turning an enslaved person into a child—a full human—heir to a kingdom of patriarchal power.

As verse seven states: “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Pay attention to the dangerous interpretive work happening in that little word, “but.” There’s a denial of humanity occurring. This is no slave and a child. Here, Paul is firmly etching the lines between property and personhood into the Christian canon.

Paul punctuates his problematic theological anthropology at the conclusion of this chapter by giving a name to the faceless slave: Hagar. She is said to be “bearing children for slavery” who are “born according to the flesh” and the reader is encouraged to drive her and her offspring out. Sarah—ironically not mentioned by name—is the positive exemplar to Hagar’s negative: a free woman, mother to “children of the promise, like Isaac” (and by implication, the reader). Property on the one hand; promise on the other.

Whether slavery language is used in nerdy science fiction shows, or in the biblical canon, it is working what may now be named its colonial capitalist violence. It is simply impossible to use the language of slavery without conjuring the (ongoing) legacy of subjection for profit that was the transatlantic slave trade. As Dr. Mitzi Smith argues in True to Our Native Land, slavery language in the biblical text works to “reinscribe the master/slave ideology” (19).

Dr. Sheila Briggs agrees, in the journal Semeia, naming where such an ideology gets reinscribed: upon the imagination. She writes, “The reproduction of oppressive social structures in a religious text shapes an imaginative matrix which underlies all utterances of that text” (137). In other words, there is no parsing away slavery language from Paul.    

This text will always reinscribe colonial capitalist violence upon those who suffered the subjections of being rendered as human property, and their descendants. And it will always also reinscribe colonial capitalist order upon the theological imaginations of those who owned and/or profited from human property, and their descendants. (I include myself in this descriptor.)

Biblical interpreters often go to great—and awkward—lengths to resolve such violent reinscriptions, with euphemism as the greatest weapon. Dr. Clarice Martin articulates this in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, writing, “euphemistic translation risks ‘masking’ socioeconomic or political verities that are of fundamental significance in assessing historical and symbolic meaning” (55). Euphemism tries to conceal violent truths. If the biblical interpreter reads carefully and critically, it does not fully succeed in this.

Given all of this, what is the hermeneutical way forward with Galatians 4:1–7, this text for the first Sunday of the Christmas season? The only way forward is through it. For me, this means an intentional engagement with its violent negative framing of “no longer a slave but a child,” read through the lens of a United States political economy built upon chattel slavery. This centers around the language of property.

There are many ways to describe how chattel slavery rendered human life into disposable units of property. Two of the most helpful analyses come from Dr. Saidiya Hartman and Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. In Scenes of Subjection, Hartman names that, as property, the enslaved person became a surrogate for the master’s body, carrying within their flesh signs of a master’s power and dominion (21). Surely if we’re going to speak of surrogacy in this season of Christmas, it will not be of this sort.

In They Were Her Property, Jones-Rogers gives voice to an often-overlooked aspect of the propertied experience of enslaved people: the role of white women enslavers. White women were not on the sidelines, or beacons of “Christian” compassion and patience. The central claim of her book is, in fact, the opposite. She writes, “I understand these [slaveholding] women’s fundamental relationship to slavery as a relation of property…economic at its foundation” (xiii). As a white woman, it is essential that I face this aspect of slavery.

Given these brief examples of how humans were rendered as property, we now return to Galatians with even more concern about Paul’s propertied incarnation. Again, Dr. Sheila Briggs comes to our aid with a Womanist technique for unmasking such violent euphemism, encouraging the reader to find “the possibilities of liberation not given by the text, but claimed from it by the oppressed” (151).

Claiming liberation from this Galatians text, I can argue that Paul’s framing of the incarnation as an inheritance of owning property be turned on its head and revealed as a shallow theological imagination. I can name it inadequate language for articulating the remarkable claims of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

So, too, is Paul’s negative theological anthropology met with truth-telling critique. “No longer a slave, but a child” is a logic rooted in the denial of the humanity of enslaved persons. This logic cannot be named a “sign of the time” of Paul in his socio-historical context. It can (and should), however, be named what it is: heresy. If the incarnation of Jesus Christ for Christians means God being born into the world in radical solidarity, precarious flesh, and uncoercive love, then framing such a birth with slaveholding language is incompatible with that witness. It is heresy.  

You see, my admittedly harsh critique of Galatians 4:1–7 is not an outright rejection of the text. It is, rather, a deep engagement with the text that exposes the limits of Paul’s patriarchal theo-political imagination. It is a cautionary tale for all who would relegate the violences of such a text to metaphorical meaninglessness or worse, as a justification for subjection.

My engagement with Galatians in this way is asserting the belief that a text breathed by the Spirit may mean, not that it is unquestionably holy, but rather, that it can reveal troubling truths for those willing to dwell in its horrors, and that such truth-telling is itself holy.

Because that, for me, is what the incarnation—the enfleshment—is: God dwelling in and through the horrors (and delights) of human history in Jesus Christ.

This enfleshment was not—and cannot—be adequately imagined through a Pauline lens of human property. Jesus doesn’t even fit within Paul’s narrow propertied theological imagination in Galatians. Jesus wasn’t born into an undisputed lineage of rich inheritance; he was born into extreme precarity, beset by the power-laden paranoia of Herod’s theo-political regime. He was, from his first breath, a fugitive from state power.

This fugitivity did not run away from pain, or ignore it, or theologize it. It dwelt in pain. And it ran towards freedom, acceptance, inclusion, and joy. And so, those who read Paul’s propertied incarnation in Galatians should not run away from its horrors or theologize them. We should find truth in them (though perhaps not the truth Paul intended). We should tell truth from them. We should cultivate theological anthropologies that are not only unreliant upon a master/slave dialectic, but that outright reject such logics.

Because a child is born. Free.

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